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Witchcraft allegations can destroy lives, leading to profound human-rights violations

Superstitions can lead to children being harmed and abused, so it’s essential that the authorities address the problem. Sally Hayden reports 

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By Sally Hayden on

It was a decade before accused witch Mardoche Yembi could speak about his childhood ordeal. Even now, he talks stiltedly, with determination but lots of heavy pauses. “I want people to know this can happen,” he tells The Pool.

What happened was this: when he was eight years old, Yembi’s guardians decided he was possessed by evil spirits. The subsequent years of domestic abuse still haunt him. Even now, he questions whether he’s abnormal, while wishing he asked for help earlier. "I was always smiling. Even though deep down I was [hurting], somehow it didn't show in full and that's why the school thought there was nothing wrong."

With Halloween approaching, pointy hats and black cats are back in vogue. In fact, witchcraft itself has been declared “all the rage” by newspapers . However, while it might seem very 17th-century Salem, voodoo, witchcraft and accusations of sorcery are still leading to brutal human-rights violations across the world.

Over the past 20 years, thousands of Tanzanian women have been stabbed, strangled or burned alive after being condemned as witches, often because relatives want them off the family’s land. Some LGBT Ugandans are forced to go through “exorcisms”, which involve a witch doctor cutting through their joints and starving them for days. Just last year, an emaciated Nigerian toddler was rescued from the streets by Danish aid worker Anja Ringgren Loven, after his family declared him a witch. 

Meanwhile, closer to home, British anti-slavery commissioner Kevin Hyland has warned about the use of “juju” – a form of witchcraft – which people traffickers use to force Nigerian women to come to the UK and work as prostitutes. Once here, abused women believe if they escape they’ll be punished by the devil. 

In September, the United Nations held an Experts’ Workshop on Witchcraft and Human Rights, the highest-level discussion on this problem so far. Over two days in Geneva, aid workers and academics spoke about encounters with superstition and the harm it can cause, while survivors of witchcraft allegations told their stories.

Yembi, who is now 25, was one of those talking about his past. He detailed how he moved to the UK from the Democratic Republic of the Congo after his mother’s death. Soon, his aunt started dreaming she was being chased by a spirit. When Yembi was 11, a pastor in Brixton decided that he was possessed by “kindoki”, or evil spirits, and should be returned to the DRC for treatment.

Mardoche Yembi (Photo: BBC)
 

“I was quite lucky to be in England,” he reflects now. When his family tried to pull him out of school, a teacher reported it to social services. Yembi was taken into foster care.

What came out of the two days of discussion in September was the sheer scale of this problem, spreading across countries and continents, across religious and political beliefs. In fact, the one commonality was that these accusations tend to be aimed squarely at the most vulnerable – the young, the elderly, women on their own in severely patriarchal societies and anyone else perceived as different.

“The aim of the conference was trying to get the UN to take seriously the damage done by accusations of witchcraft, especially against women and children,” says Jean Sybil La Fontaine, a British anthropologist and London School of Economics professor, who flew to Geneva for the event.

***

In London, witchcraft and related human-rights abuses have been on police radar for a while.

In 2000, Victoria Climbié, an eight-year-old from the Ivory Coast, was tortured and murdered by her great-aunt and her boyfriend in Haringey, after they suspected her of being possessed by spirits. Project Violet, the Metropolitan Police’s unit investigating faith-related child abuse, was born out of that tragedy. Allen Davis, the Metropolitan Police inspector in charge of Project Violet, tells The Pool he thinks witchcraft-related crimes in the UK are still hugely misunderstood and underreported. “My belief is that the problems are far broader and wider than what we get to hear in crime reports,” he says.

In London alone, there were 49 referrals to the project between 2014 and 2015, rising to 70 in 2015-2016. This is the tip of the iceberg, Davis says. Many more crimes are filed under the sections of domestic violence, honour killings or female genital mutilation (FGM).

In September, the United Nations held an Experts’ Workshop on Witchcraft and Human Rights, the highest-level discussion on this problem so far

Children branded as “witches” or “possessed” are usually those who act differently for other reasons, such as those with physical disabilities, learning difficulties, mental-health issues or even children who wet the bed, he explains.

“What goes with [the accusations] is neglect, efforts to beat the devil out, burn the devil out, all of which causes physical and emotional harm because all of these issues are very traumatic for vulnerable children often conducted by those closest to them.”

Davis stresses that while there are “certain communities where you have very strong belief in the invisible world and witchcraft,” these sorts of beliefs aren’t linked to any one faith or nationality. Belief is complex, he says. Often, people are grasping for a way to understand misfortune that’s befallen them. “We’re not being critical of any belief system which we know is important to those who hold it… These thought patterns are very real and common. But what’s harmful is where a child is blamed for causing that misfortune.”

Davis' job involves monitoring trends in witchcraft-related abuse all over the world, because London is such a melting pot of cultures and traditions. He also runs safeguarding training for schools, saying it’s incredibly important to make sure teachers take any mentions of witchcraft or spirits they hear from children or their parents seriously.

“The message I’d always give out is that these issues are very real, they’re not necessarily going away. You’d think with globalisation and modernising the practices would die out… That’s not necessarily what’s happening,” he says. “What we know about these issues is that there can be a very rapid escalation from accusations to child murder.”

 

***

I phone the Department of Education to see what they thought. On the phone, a spokesperson sounds immediately dismissive. She says she’ll send over the safeguarding advice they provide to schools, but gives a small laugh. “As you can imagine, I think a specific reference to that [witchcraft] is unlikely.”

She is right. In 107 pages of governmental guidelines, there are no mentions of witches or witchcraft, voodoo, or children designated as “possessed” or “evil”.

After realising this, I want to know whether teachers are aware of the seriousness of witchcraft accusations. Of 12 UK-based teachers and two teaching assistants spoken to by The Pool, only one has ever heard anything to do with witchcraft mentioned in training.

“Safeguarding isn’t too prescriptive,” he says. “Schools all do their own dependent on the needs of the school and its population.” His primary school’s administration, based in south London, happened to have mentioned witchcraft.

Another teacher in south London says, while she had never been trained, she was aware that some families with children in her school do believe in witchcraft. “It sounds [like] an awful experience for a child,” she says.

Kristy Bamu was drowned after three days of torture while visiting his sister in the UK. His teeth had been knocked out with a metal bar and his ear was twisted with pliers

 

Two teaching assistants in south London say they know nothing about it, though they completed extensive training aimed at spotting children who might be vulnerable to FGM or extremism (under the UK government’s PREVENT programme).

Another agrees: “Safeguarding is almost all about PREVENT at the moment.” His only exposure to anything close to “witchcraft” was when a student claimed she had an “out-of-body experience, there was a ghost waiting for her outside of school and it was going to beat her up”. It was hard to tell whether she was really convinced, he says, because she used it as an excuse to play with her phone during class.

“While the number of child-abuse cases involving witchcraft is relatively small, they often include horrifying levels of cruelty,” an NSPCC spokesperson writes in an email to The Pool. While it’s tempting not to take them seriously, every few years another horrific case reminds the general public why they’re so frightening.

Both Davis and Yembi bring up Kristy Bamu, a 15-year-old found dead in an east London flat on Christmas Day in 2010. A French resident, he was drowned after three days of torture while visiting his sister in the UK. His teeth had been knocked out with a metal bar and his ear was twisted with pliers. In total, he had 130 injuries.

It was later disclosed that his sister, Magalie, and her boyfriend, Eric, forced Kristy’s siblings to attack him, while abusing him themselves. Speaking during the subsequent murder trial, another traumatised sister, Kelly, recounted: “They asked if we were witches. I repeated again and again and again that we were not. I did not know what was going on in their minds. They decided we had come to kill them.”

For Yembi, Bamu’s fate is a sharp and painful reminder of what might have happened to him if he wasn’t rescued. Now, he wants anyone going through this to know they can speak out. "I just thought if I could talk about my experience, hopefully one kid will see a story like my one and they will relate to it. They'll know they're not the problem."

@sallyhayd

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